Plan to extend surveillance powers threatens the press

Esser: "fight this all the way"

Editors are being urged to work as a concerted lobby to stop investigative journalism being undermined by new legislation giving a raft of agencies the power to see records of telephone and internet communications.

The Society of Editors is calling for national and regional newspaper editors to weigh in now to stop an expanded list of organisations being given the right to demand communications data. Society director Bob Satchwell has asked for an urgent meeting with the Home Secretary.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger told Press Gazette: "This is going to be a real menace to investigative reporters. More or less any agency from the district council up can say they want the telephone logs of almost anybody, without having to go to court to get them.

"If you think of the implications for journalists’ sources, it’s going to make it very difficult to talk to them over the phone or by e-mail."

The Guardian claimed on Tuesday that a draft order to be debated by MPs next week shows that what the press thought was to be a general surveillance power for the Government has been widened to include seven Whitehall departments, every local authority in the country, NHS bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland and 11 other public bodies, from Postcomm to the Food Standards Agency.

All these authorities will now be able to get telephone companies, internet service providers and postal operators to hand over detailed information on individuals and their e-mail and mobile phone records.

Rusbridger wants his fellow editors to run campaigns about the threat, drawing it to the attention of readers, and to start lobbying Government hard.

"We ought to get some kind of explicit statement from the Government that this should not be used against journalists or their sources," he stated. "Otherwise it doesn’t even state what level of people are going to be allowed to take this decision."

Satchwell has told David Blunkett that editors want to respond positively and sensibly in the fight against terrorism, but they cannot see the justification for such a wide extension of powers.

The original Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act gave authority to demand such records only to police forces, the intelligence services, customs and excise and the Inland Revenue.

"The original RIPA legislation was bad enough," said Rusbridger, "but if you look at the list of people they are now trying to get in, they are more or less anybody a journalist might be writing about. It’s really alarming."

Robin Esser, who chairs the Society of Editors’ parliamentary and legal committee, said: "We have absolutely got to fight this one all the way. At this very late stage, we are going to have to get editors to use their muscle."

He sees the extended list as a threat to individuals’ privacy and the public’s right to know.

The Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society have been fighting to get the Government to audit any proposed legislation for its effect on journalism before it becomes law and has received assurances that this will be done.

Esser claimed, however: "We get promises that there will be a media audit, but the Government is a massive machine and perhaps when a senior minister promises these things, they themselves don’t know what is coming up."

Jean Morgan

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